lessons from a large youth service program

I’ve previously posted a link to my evaluation of Points of Light’s ServiceWorks program, which engages thousands of disadvantaged teenagers and young adults in service projects. In addition to yielding good outcomes for the participating youth, the program also suggests lessons of general interest to anyone who promotes youth civic engagement. This is a summary of four issues, taken from the CIRCLE website:

  • Scale vs. Depth: Programs that aim to provide compelling positive experiences for young people must weigh the competing goals of reaching many youth and deeply affecting the participants, particularly those who are highly disadvantaged. ServiceWorks sought to reach 25,000 youth over three years with a medium-dosage program (more sustained than a one-time service project, but less intensive than a full-time opportunity lasting months such as YouthBuild, City Year, or the National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe program). Although ServiceWorks has found a reasonable balance between size and depth, this demonstration project reinforces that trade-off. Pushing for large numbers may have shifted at least some ServiceWorks sites toward enrolling not-as-disadvantaged youth or lowering expectations for how much each Scholar would accomplish. Focusing resources on fewer youth might produce higher impact and increase the proportion of participants who are particularly disadvantaged.
  • Demonstrating Skills for the Labor Market: Although the evidence collected here shows that ServiceWorks Scholars gain skills, particularly project-management skills that would help them in the workforce, prospective employers may not always recognize the value of these skills. ServiceWorks and similar programs should consider offering reliable certificates or credentials for participants who demonstrate job-relevant skills (and not automatically for those who complete the program). The challenge of connecting youth who have 21st century skills to jobs will require shared understanding and partnerships between youth-serving nonprofits and employers.
  • Incorporating Youth into Diverse, Intergenerational Teams: At least some ServiceWorks sites bring youth of diverse backgrounds together with adults to collaborate on social issues. Youth contribute distinctive knowledge and talents, as do the VISTA members, unpaid adult volunteers, program staff, and professional educators. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect, shared learning, empathy, and collaboration. Scholars value that atmosphere and find it atypical in their lives. ServiceWorks and similar programs should give explicit attention to creating such climates.
  • Youth Voice: ServiceWorks encourages Scholars to choose issues and strategies for their service projects. Scholars often identify very difficult issues, discuss these topics with sophistication and nuance, and then struggle to implement projects that would address the underlying causes that they have identified. Although giving young people choice and voice is important, asking them to plan and implement a whole social change initiative in a short period may produce frustration. Possible solutions include structuring deliberations so that young people are more likely to choose successful projects, connecting youth to ongoing initiatives, or recognizing that they have natural talents and affinities for awareness-raising, media-production, and policy advocacy, and highlighting those activities (along with conventional community service). That would mean viewing programs like ServiceWorks as a potential space for youth-driven media-literacy education or Action Civics (a recent movement that emphasizes youth voice in policy) as well as examples of service-learning and workforce education.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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